When poverty itself becomes ownership: a reflection on the poverty of humility

In 2009 I left a career in private service to become a monk. In the months before I entered the community as a postulant, I steadily began clearing out bits of ‘dead wood’ from my life: possessions, bad habits, thoughts and deeds, everything that wasn’t directed towards Him. Some of these things were impossible to clear, and others could be thrown out of my life’s window immediately, without so much as a glance back. As I attended to this much-overdue housekeeping, I recalled what a young monk told me during my monastery live-in:

(para.)… “When you become a monk, you bring everything with you; you don’t suddenly become a different person. All your baggage, your strengths and weaknesses, you bring through the enclosure door. And that’s how it should be, because transformation is a life’s-work.

It is important for anyone dedicated to following Christ to step outside of their own comfort zone, to leave everything and follow Him. The way we each do this varies hugely, not only because of our circumstances but because of our own characters and our deep human needs. In his rule for monks, St Benedict made no bones about the importance of complete renunciation; however, what monks owned in common might vary depending on the individual:

It is written: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). By this we do not imply that there should be favouritism–God forbid–but rather consideration for weaknesses, Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown him. In this way all the members will be at peace. First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all.

I am relatively lucky, because I have no attachment to any item whatsoever. Getting rid of ‘stuff’ is no issue for me. If I was told that I was going to lose everything I own, I wouldn’t be at all worried. Having experienced both the freedom and the bitterness of poverty in various aspects of my life history, I know that owning less sits much better with me than owning more. I also understand that not everyone feels this, and that is fine. As St Benedict suggests by the quote above, there is probably no right or wrong way to be, because we are all so different – and thank God that we are! In monastic life, where each in the community owns everything in common, the only sickness of this sort is when one sort of person tells the other what they should be doing, if their way is not fitting for that person (as St Benedict aptly terms it, grumbling).

After a year or so of living in the noviciate, my finely-tuned search for minimalism began to soften, and I think this was a good thing. But this wasn’t a natural softening; I changed because I had to; I realised I had been going the wrong way. Through my desire to leave everything and follow Him, and almost without realising it, I had begun a kind of crusade of pride against those I lived with. The less we own, the better we are; that is what I thought. In my cell I had no more than a mattress on the floor, a small pile of clothes, some books and a reading lamp. I policed this minimalism as though it were helping me, whereas I was ruining myself by pride and arrogance. I had turned asceticism itself into a form of ownership; I had made it my own and this had no place in my search for God. I had taken away all of the peripheral, time-wasting objects and concerns, and replaced them with another distraction.

Circumstances began teaching me that what Jesus is looking for is quite simply a living relationship with Him. There are signposts on this journey and I should use them. Indeed, one of these signposts is stripping everything away that is not Him. This is the purpose of monasticism: to become part of Him and to forget everything that is not Him. To use the signposts of monasticism is imperative, but I should never sit and worship the signpost itself. Instead, I need to look at where it’s pointing, and start walking.

The ease with which I renounced things of the world obscured a vastly more difficult and important terrain: I needed to work on my inner housekeeping, and reevaluate exactly what poverty is, for me. Thinking myself good at becoming poor, I had renounced the things of the world, to the point of making non-ownership into ownership (a kind of god in itself). I knew I had gone the wrong way, and I considered how to turn back. Thinking again of that signpost pointing towards Him, I would need to understand and experience what it is to make that first walk, away from the signpost, and in the direction of Jesus.

When we read and decide to follow a signpost, it means we trust it; we think perhaps that others have gone before us, it is there for a reason. But there has to be a time when we go off on our own, beyond the sign and into that new place of learning, where life is strange to us, where we may sense progress, albeit alongside trepidation and even fear. It must be so, or otherwise we wouldn’t need a signpost in the first place.

Coming to Christ in poverty is part of my vocation but until recently I have misrepresented the term ‘poverty’; I’ve not considered just how poor I must make myself to receive Him in my heart. I look back at my struggles to attain poverty as a novice Cistercian monk: they represent a stinted understanding of being poor, a kind of human courtship with poverty. I don’t see what I did as a mistake, because it was all part of the mystery of that journey towards my Creator. Since then, through experiences in my life I have learnt what it truly is to be poor, not only in terms of having nowhere to live, no money, no health etc., but in Christian terms: emptying myself of what I think is important, so that He can take me over. As St Rafael Arnáiz made his motto: ‘Solo Dios basta‘. God alone is enough. Nothing else matters. Only Him. It is what Rowan Williams calls a radical ‘process of unselfing’ (The wound of knowledge: Christian spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, 1991) and it is what monasticism is all about. When it comes to making ourselves poor enough to receive Him, I think we never get there in this world, not fully. Embracing poverty is a gateway into inestimable freedom, but it is also a giant step into the world of mystery, not least the mystery of humility. And that always means that we are not in a place of comfort. Our individual cycle of poverty can change over time, throughout our lives; we can feel freed by it, or crushed by it, and anything in-between. We can be in need of different forms of poverty, and these shift, because we are human. We cannot truly ‘own’ our own poverty because it shape-shifts throughout our journey, and is designed within the context of the mystery of faith. Nevertheless, as Christians we remember that poverty is founded on true humility; it is not a negation as much as an openness, a willingness to be transformed by what is beyond us.

All Christians, not just monastics, are called into a life of poverty; poverty, in the sense I have spoken of: emptiness to receive, openness to cast out our own preconceived ideas and labels in order to welcome the wisdom of God into our hearts. This is a golden thread running through all vocational paths: married life, monastic life, single life, community life or eremiticism, etc. We are each called to find the poverty we are called to live out, to ask God for the grace to respond to His call to emptiness of heart. But it should be the right sort of poverty; we should never fear asking ourselves – at our very deepest levels – whether the poverty we subscribe to is truly from God. Poverty should be a place that you have emptied in order to receive Him; it is not a place of comfort, even if it may give joy; it is a place inside of you, which is a foundation for your discourse with your loving Creator.

For me, seeking poverty is linked inextricably with the reclamation of humility. Here is where it becomes very difficult, because humility is such an aspiration, and so difficult to achieve. To be truly humble demands poverty on an heroic level. To be more specific, it requires poverty on a scale only God can give, because without his gift of love, such a longing is impossible. St Teresa of Avila frames the poverty of humility thus:

It is a most certain truth, that the richer we see ourselves to be, confessing at the same time our poverty, the greater will be our progress, and the more real our humility.

Yes, in part, poverty is emptying ourselves. St Paul reminds us who we emulate in doing so:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

This was the ultimate ‘process of unselfing’; the poverty of humility, and we are called to follow Jesus, our ultimate guide.

Speaking of signposts, there are others apart from Jesus whom we can use as yardsticks on our search for genuine poverty, and the first must be Mary. She made herself the poor handmaid of the Lord and became the Mother of God. Yet her life was not easier for it: Our Lady’s life and vocation was characterised by a shifting bedrock of poverty which kept her open to receive and learn, to stay empty and humble. At the wedding at Cane she said: “Do whatever He tells you”. As I pray to know Him better, I grip onto this saying of Mary, who always longs that we come closer to her Son. As we move into our poverty of heart, perhaps we can begin to better understand her heart also, and we can pray to her, that she may lead us to Jesus.

As a final text for reflection, I quote the words of another follower of Jesus, albeit from the 4th-5th centuries. He too is seeking God, and has located poverty of heart as the place to be transformed:

If one sees a person puffed up by arrogance and pride because he has received grace and even if he should perform signs and should raise up the dead, if he, nevertheless, does not hold his soul as abject and humble and does not consider himself poor in spirit… he is duped by the devil and is ignorant. Granted he has performed signs, but he is not to be trusted. For the sign of the Christian is this: that one is pleasing to God so as to seek to hide one’s self from human eyes. And even if a person should possess the complete treasures of the King, he should hide them and say repeatedly: ‘the treasure is not mine, but another has given it to me as a charge. I am a beggar, and when he so pleases, he can claim it from me.’ If anyone should say ‘I am rich. I have enough. I possess goods. There is nothing more I need.’ Such a person is not a Christian but a vessel of deceit and of the devil, for the enjoyment of God is insatiable and the more one tastes and eats the more one hungers. Persons like this have an ardour and love towards God that nothing can restrain. And the more they apply themselves to the art of growing in perfection, the more they count themselves as poor, as those in great need, and possessing nothing. This is why they say “I am not worthy that the sun shines its rays on me”. This is the sign of the Christian, named, this very humility. (from Pseudo Macarius’ Spiritual Homily 15.37)

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